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Her Money and Her Nose

An excerpt from Francine Prose’s new biography of the eminent art collector and socialite Peggy Guggenheim

Jewish Lives (Sponsored)
October 01, 2015
Solomon R. Guggenheim Foundation. Photo Archivio CameraphotoEpoche. Gift, Cassa di Risparmio di Venezia, 2005
Peggy Guggenheim in the dining room of Palazzo Venier dei Leoni, Venice, 1960s. On the wall (left to right) Marcel Duchamp, Nude (Study), Sad Young Man on a Train (1911-12 PGC), Vasily Kandinsky, Landscape with Red Spots, No. 2 (1913, PGC), Georges Braque, The Clarinet (1912, PGC); in the foreground, on the table, Jean Arp, Head and Shell (1933, PGC). Solomon R. Guggenheim Foundation. Photo Archivio CameraphotoEpoche. Gift, Cassa di Risparmio di Venezia, 2005
Solomon R. Guggenheim Foundation. Photo Archivio CameraphotoEpoche. Gift, Cassa di Risparmio di Venezia, 2005
Peggy Guggenheim in the dining room of Palazzo Venier dei Leoni, Venice, 1960s. On the wall (left to right) Marcel Duchamp, Nude (Study), Sad Young Man on a Train (1911-12 PGC), Vasily Kandinsky, Landscape with Red Spots, No. 2 (1913, PGC), Georges Braque, The Clarinet (1912, PGC); in the foreground, on the table, Jean Arp, Head and Shell (1933, PGC). Solomon R. Guggenheim Foundation. Photo Archivio CameraphotoEpoche. Gift, Cassa di Risparmio di Venezia, 2005

This is a sponsored post on behalf of Yale University Press and their Jewish Lives series.

Her Money

Whenever Peggy Guggenheim is mentioned, by those who knew her and by those who have written about her after her death, among the motifs that recur most often are her money and her nose. What connects these two seemingly disparate entities are the clichés of antisemitism, the shorthand with which bigots signify Jews and Jewish identity. That is what Jews care about and how one identifies them: their money, their noses.

In Peggy’s case, these two nouns and their distasteful implications signified the ways in which she saw herself and was viewed by others: as a wealthy woman with the bad luck to be physically unattractive, thanks to what Peggy, her family, and friends saw as her disfiguring flaw—an overly large nose. In fact, photos of Peggy as a young woman show her to be quite pretty, not a striking beauty, but appealing nonetheless. And that appeal continued well into middle age, when she disfigured herself by dyeing her hair a harsh unflattering black and painting her mouth an equally unlovely and strident scarlet.

In Venice, some of her earlier prettiness returned when, in her final decades, she resolved to dress more elegantly and decided to let her hair go gray. Though it is said that she never let herself be photographed in profile, a few portraits taken from that angle do exist; her nose is hardly what one would call pert, but it’s by no means the bulbous monstrosity that she—and others—have suggested that she had.

In any case, these topics—her nose, her money—so thoroughly dominate the contemporary and posthumous conversations about Peggy Guggenheim’s life that we have to consider them, separately and together, and to look at how they formed her character, how they enabled her to do what she did, to have the adventures she wished to have, and at the same time cut off other avenues that might have led her to seek very different sorts of fulfillment.


In the privileged society in which Peggy grew up, the Jewish families who acquired mansions in New York’s best neighborhoods and on the Jersey shore dressed in the latest fashions, served elaborate meals on the finest china, with elegant silver and crystal, and hired servants to do whatever they felt was beneath them. A Guggenheim, or a Straus, or a Seligman was expected to be meticulously well mannered and to avoid anything that might be considered ostentatious or vulgar. “Whenever Meyer Guggenheim [the patriarch of the Guggenheim family and Peggy’s grandfather] took his sleigh or carriage through the park, he drove alone, managing the reins himself, avoiding the showiness of a coachman and footmen. There was almost a rule of thumb: the richer one was, the more decorous and inconspicuous one endeavored to be.”

It was assumed that the families in the Guggenheims’ circle would donate to worthy causes because it was a sort of Eleventh Commandment, to “give back”—to show gratitude to the country that had enabled them to prosper, and to honor the God whose mysterious blessing had obligated them to look out for the welfare of those less gifted or lucky. This tradition would inspire Peggy’s relatives to lend their names to a museum and a foundation. And it would move Peggy to respond to charitable requests, to support friends whose work she believed in, and to help a group of artist-refugees to escape Europe during the war.

However much Peggy might have preferred to maintain some privacy about the depth of her pockets, the terms of her inheritance, and her eccentric and impulsive vacillations between generosity and miserliness, that dignity was denied her. Her friends speculated at length about how rich she was. Was it true, as she often insisted, that her inheritance required her to survive on an income that, while generous, had limits? Was she wealthy by ordinary—or by Guggenheim—standards?

What’s clear is that she was always the richest member of her circle, the one who paid the rent on the homes that she and a revolving cast of artists and bohemians inhabited in Europe and in New York, the one who was expected to pick up the check after dinner. In a letter to his father, the writer Charles Henri Ford describes a night out in Paris, a lavish meal followed by drinks at several nightclubs and ending with Peggy “having paid for the whole party.” In John Glassco’s Memoirs of Montparnasse, a couple based on Peggy and Laurence Vail treat the author and his friends to “oysters, langoustines with mayonnaise, sweetbreads and green peas, parsley potatoes, a pineapple tart, and a magnum of champagne,” after which “the waiter presented the bill with a discreet murmur. Would Madame sign?”

Many people who knew Peggy, even tangentially, were quick to ask her for money. A lover of Emily Coleman’s, an Italian named Bianchetti, was perpetually suggesting ways in which Emily might borrow or extort funds from her prosperous friend. Regardless of what Peggy claimed about the state of her bank account, the mention of her family name conjured up (as it continues to do today) the image of more money than one person, even Peggy, could spend in a lifetime. “Peggy is so clumsy with money,” Coleman wrote, “because it is so important to her.”

Long before Peggy established herself as a patron of the arts and as the nexus of a changing coterie of dependents, the history of her family fortune was well known. As a boy, her maternal grandfather, James Seligman, had demonstrated a flair for business in his mother’s dry goods shop in the Bavarian town of Baiersdorf. In 1837 her great-uncle Joseph, then seventeen, emigrated to the United States. Arriving in rural Pennsylvania, where he had relatives, Joseph worked first as a clerk, then as a peddler, selling household goods door to door.

Soon he was able to bring his siblings over from Germany, and they opened a series of stores across the country and ultimately in San Francisco, where they arrived in time for the Gold Rush and began to trade in the precious metal. During the Civil War, they secured government contracts to manufacture military uniforms. By the time the war ended, they were not only rich but had established themselves as bankers: respected members of New York’s upper class.

The family’s new social prominence and respectability did not preclude the operation (exacerbated by the inbreeding common in the insular Jewish community) of what appears to have been a rogue gene that produced, in the Seligmans, aberrant behaviors ranging from the simply peculiar to the self-destructive and tragic. Peggy took a perverse familial pride in her relatives’ odd habits and delusions. During his divorce from Peggy, Laurence Vail threatened to sue for full custody of their two children by claiming that Peggy was as unbalanced as the rest of her family. Fortunately, he never acted on his threat, for the evidence of hereditary instability might have proved persuasive.

Her grandmother, her mother, several aunts and uncles, and Peggy herself were obsessed with cleanliness and phobic about germs. One uncle bathed several times daily, another refused to shake hands; the women (again including Peggy) compulsively wiped down household surfaces and sprayed the air with Lysol. Peggy’s obese Aunt Adelaide conducted a love affair with an imaginary pharmacist named Balch. Uncle Washington survived on a diet of ice and charcoal, wore jackets with zinc-lined pockets, and killed himself at fifty-six. Two cousins were also suicides; one shot his wife and then himself. Her pathologically miserly Uncle Eugene was known for arriving precisely at dinnertime and assuring his relatives’ welcome by performing a trick that involved moving the dining room chairs together and wriggling across the seats on his belly, like a snake.

Peggy’s mother, Florette, suffered from a disorder that made her repeat everything three times, and, like Eugene, from the intermittent, irrational stinginess of which Peggy was also accused. On family trips, Florette tipped the hotel porters so poorly that the busboys marked her valises with X’s, and took every opportunity to drop and damage them.

At twenty, Peggy suffered a nervous collapse; among her symptoms was a compulsion to pick up burned matches from the street out of terror that they might start a fire. And when, in 1928, Hazel’s sons died in a fall from a high building in Manhattan, Hazel was believed to have killed them.

Despite their history of minor eccentricity and madness, the Seligmans looked down on Peggy’s paternal relations, the Guggenheims, who had arrived in New York later than the Seligmans and who had rapidly made their fortunes in commerce and mining rather than in the more refined pursuits of banking and finance.

In 1847 Simon Guggenheim, together with his wife and seven children, left Switzerland for Philadelphia. His twenty-year-old son Meyer became a peddler, applying his innate ingenuity to developing new products that would improve on ones that existed. His first success involved a superior stove polish he concocted with a chemist friend. He prospered in the lace and embroidery business until, in the 1880s, Meyer—by now the middle-aged father of seven sons—invested in lead and copper mines in Colorado, and in the machinery to pump out the water that had made the mines inoperable. Over the next twenty years, the Guggenheims acquired smelters and refineries, formed an exploration company that led to the purchase of gold, tin, copper, silver, and diamond mines in Africa and Latin America—and became one of the wealthiest families in the United States.

As profitable as the business was, it failed to hold the interest of Benjamin, Meyer’s handsome fifth son, who ceased working with his father and brothers in 1901. Seven years earlier, he had married Florette Seligman, a union that that Seligmans considered “a mésalliance.” To explain that she was marrying into the well-known mining family, the Seligmans sent a cable to their relatives in Europe saying, “Florette engaged Guggenheim smelter.” This became a cherished family joke, as the message that actually arrived had been mistakenly transcribed as, “Guggenheim smelt her.”

Florette and Benjamin’s first daughter, Benita, arrived in 1895. Three years later, on August 26, Marguerite (known first as Maggie and subsequently as Peggy) was born. Hazel, their youngest, followed in 1903.

Peggy was an infant when Benjamin moved his family to a grand limestone mansion on East 72nd Street, a home that Peggy would recall as a place of unmitigated gloom and bad taste. In the marble entrance hall was a stuffed eagle that Benjamin had shot (illegally) in the Adirondacks, a sort of companion piece to the bear rug—with a tongue that fell out and teeth that came loose—in the mirrored Louise XVI parlor. In an upstairs reception room, beneath a tapestry of Alexander the Great entering Rome, Florette invited “the most boring ladies of the haute Jewish bourgeoisie” to weekly tea parties that her reluctant daughter was forced to attend.

It’s not clear when Benjamin Guggenheim was first unfaithful to his wife, but another family story suggests that womanizing was a character flaw rather than his response to an unsatisfactory marriage: Benjamin is supposed to have told a nephew, “Never make love before breakfast. One, it’s tiring. Two, you may meet someone else during the day that you like better.” By the time Peggy was five or six, everyone seemed to know that her father had lovers; the first of these may have been a nurse who was hired to massage his head and soothe the pain of his neuralgia.

Years later Peggy confided in her friend Emily Coleman that, from the age of ten, she knew that her father had mistresses. (“At twenty,” Coleman comments wryly, “I had never heard of a mistress.”) One of the most telling incidents of Peggy’s childhood occurred when she was seven. In her memoir, she describes hiding under the grand piano and weeping because her father had banished her from the table for saying, “Papa, you must have a mistress as you stay out so many nights.” What’s striking is the child’s impulse not only to confront her father with the truth but, in doing so, to shock the grown-ups.

This desire to observe the effects of excessive frankness continued to influence Peggy’s social style. She conducted candid discussions about sex in her children’s presence, interrogated her dinner guests about their romances, embarrassed acquaintances with descriptions of her own erotic exploits—conversations in which one can hear echoes of Benjamin’s salacious advice to his nephew. And her attraction to the shocking was to be reflected in her determination to show the sort of art that would have appalled the people who attended Florette’s afternoon teas.

Relegated to the care of nannies by her often-absent father and her distracted mother, Peggy craved attention and discovered that being outspoken was one way to obtain it. As an adult, she told Emily Coleman that she liked to know that people were talking about her, even if she knew they were saying cruel things.

The Guggenheims’ troubled marriage contributed to the misery of Peggy’s childhood, “one long protracted agony” of which she claimed to have had “no pleasant memories of any kind.” Early on, she was drawn into Florette’s domestic war with Benjamin, whom Peggy so adored that she would race to greet him when, on returning home, he would whistle a tune he had composed to “lure” her downstairs. Though she blamed her parents for involving her in their problems—a situation that, she claimed, made her “precocious,” by which she appears to have meant sexually precocious—she was to repeat this mistake in her own married life, encouraging her children to take sides in her battles with Laurence Vail and Kay Boyle.

When Peggy was thirteen, her father “more or less freed himself from us.” He began spending more time in Paris, where he lost much of his fortune, investing in a company that proposed to install elevators in the Eiffel Tower. According to Peggy’s accountant, Bernard Reis, she would have inherited approximately $200 million if her father had chosen to remain with the family business instead of branching out on his own.

In the spring of 1912, Benjamin Guggenheim booked passage back to New York on a steamship that was kept in dry dock by a worker’s strike. Determined to get home in time for Hazel’s birthday, he bought tickets—for himself, his secretary-valet, his driver, and (though this is in some dispute) his mistress—on the RMS Titanic. According to the ship’s steward who brought the bad news to Florette, Benjamin and his secretary refused the offer of life preservers when the ship was going down. Dressed in formal evening clothes, they helped their fellow passengers into lifeboats.

Peggy claimed never to have recovered from the loss of her father. For the rest of her life, she wrote, she would look for a man to replace him. Decades removed from childhood tragedy, she was able to speak of it ironically, thus providing the punchline for this passage from the British painter Michael Wishart’s memoir, High Diver. “My friendship with Peggy has been punctuated by mishaps. We have been trapped together, suspended in a small wire cage which was a lift described by Cocteau as dating from a time before lifts were invented and once, during a violent tempest, we were in a small boat aimed at Capri, which turned backwards somersaults while attempting to enter the haven of Sorrento. Peggy’s father had drowned on the Titanic and she thought it would have been unkind of Fate to dispose of two generations in the same fashion.”

Benjamin’s death had immediate repercussions for her family. Once it became clear that he had lost millions on his Parisian business ventures, the Guggenheim uncles convened to decide how to maintain Florette and the girls in something approaching style to which they had been accustomed. When Florette realized that her brothers-in-law had shielded her from the truth, she sold some of her jewels and furs and moved her daughters to more modest quarters.

Not long afterward, Peggy’s maternal grandfather, James Seligman, died, leaving Florette with a substantial inheritance. And in 1919, when Peggy turned twenty-one, she received $450,000—which would translate, today, to approximately $5 million. Her uncles suggested that she keep her money in trust and live off the income, which amounted to more than $20,000 a year—again representing a tenth of what that sum would mean today. When Florette died in 1937, Peggy inherited another $450,000. And so we return to the question of how much money Peggy Guggenheim had.

She was rich compared to most people, but in fact not wealthy by Guggenheim standards, and her resources were meager compared to the fortune her family had enjoyed and spent freely when she was a child. Yet her friends assumed that she had unlimited funds, and that the attempts at economy with which Peggy tempered her generosity betrayed a selfish and miserly nature. Since no one (including Peggy, it seems) knew precisely how much she was worth, speculations about her income varied wildly.

Memoirs of Montparnasse includes a scene in which Peggy and Laurence Vail appear under the names of Sally and Terence Marr, and which begins with a discussion of Sally’s finances:

“Money,” [Bob] said, “is not so important as Fitzgerald thinks, but you have to have some. Not too much, though. You’ll notice this when we have lunch with Sally and Terence Marr tomorrow. … Wonderful people, and they’d be perfectly happy if only she didn’t have so goddamn much money.”

“How much does she have?” asked Graeme.

“Twenty, thirty million, how do I know? I bet she doesn’t know herself.”

In William Gerhardie’s Mortal Love, Peggy appears as Molly, “a rich American.” “[She] was indeed rich, but complained of recent curtailments in the source of her income: to which Walter and Dinah listened with the pained surprise of the poor told that the rich are also poor.”

In 1931 Charles Henri Ford reported to his father, “Djuna [Barnes] and I were taken to dinner the other night by Peggy Guggenheim, a millionairess: she has 30 million dollars in her own name, and will have 70 million when her mother dies. . . . When we got home, Djuna said, would you think just looking at her that she had 70 million dollars?”

Djuna Barnes was one of the people who benefited most (indeed, for much of her life) from Peggy’s generosity—and who grumbled bitterly about her stinginess. From the 1920s on, Peggy sent Barnes a monthly stipend, ceasing only temporarily when Djuna exhausted her patience or when Peggy felt it would be more helpful for Barnes to try and survive on her own. She sent her former teacher, Lucille Kohn, “countless $100s.” She lent Berenice Abbot the money to buy a camera, gave the poet Margaret Anderson five hundred dollars to publish the Little Review (which serialized James Joyce’s Ulysses), raised funds to enable the anarchist Emma Goldman to write her autobiography, paid for Emma’s friend Margaret Fitzgerald to travel to Europe for her health, and sent an annual sum to the indigent widow of Peggy’s lover, John Ferrar Holms.

In 1925 Peggy financed the opening of a shop in Paris to showcase the highly original lampshades made by her friend the poet Mina Loy; the store also sold underwear and hosted an exhibition of Laurence’s paintings. Though the boutique on the rue du Colisée failed, it represented Peggy’s first attempt to exhibit and sell art.

During the German occupation, Peggy donated enough money to get André Breton and his family out of France, and she supported Max Ernst long after they arrived in the United States. Years after their divorce, she continued sending an allowance to Laurence Vail, and when Robert McAlmon, a friend from her Paris days, fell ill with tuberculosis, she wrote him a monthly check. These, of course, were direct contributions, given without any expectation of repayment or compensation. An even greater fraction of her inheritance was spent supporting painters and sculptors by buying their work.

Yet everyone seemed to have a story about her pennypinching, her awkward (but not unreasonable) insistence on adding up the checks that arrived at the end of the meals to which she treated her friends. Early in her friendship with Djuna Barnes, she made the writer the odd gift of some old, much darned lingerie, a present that Barnes found insulting but which she nonetheless wore when she wrote.

The character based on Peggy in Memoirs of Montparnasse bargains hard to reduce the price of the tickets to a pornographic film to which she and her companions have been invited. Years later friends would complain that, at her parties in Manhattan, she served only potato chips and cheap whiskey that she secretly decanted into empty bottles of single malt. A home-cooked dinner at Peggy’s might feature a course of Campbell’s canned tomato soup. An assistant who worked for her in Venice recalls being told that she was permitted to serve customers a glass of vermouth—but only after the customers had agreed to buy a painting.

The barbed critique of her parsimony would continue after her death, most egregiously in Anton Gill’s 2003 biography, Art Lover: “Peggy enjoyed being the mistress of the first real home she had ever had in her own right, and promptly began to annoy Laurence with her habit of keeping precise, even anal, household accounts. No centime could be left unaccounted for, and no groceries went unremarked. It wasn’t simply stinginess: Peggy enjoyed accountancy, and a sense of the value of money was in her blood.” One hardly knows what to make of the oxymoronic phrase, “parsimonious benefactress,” with which Andrew Field describes Peggy in his biography of Djuna Barnes. And in her biography of Jackson Pollock, Deborah Solomon refers to Peggy’s “characteristic stinginess” and her “singular stinginess.”

According to the art historian John Richardson, “Peggy was stingy. At her parties in Venice, she always served the cheapest Italian red wine that you could buy. And the food was awful. But I think she was saving her money to buy art. The rest didn’t interest her much. She was stingy with her money—but generous with herself.”

Clearly, there were times when Peggy used money to wield power in destructive ways. In a brief documentary film made during her old age, L’Ultima Dogaressa, a gardener who worked in her palazzo in Venice recalls her reluctance to pay him a fair wage. During her marriage to Laurence Vail, she clearly enjoyed telling him how much he could spend, and what he could spend it on. Perhaps the most damning account of her attempts to control others by withholding support concerns the composer John Cage, who, together with his wife, Xenia, was a houseguest at Peggy’s Manhattan home in the early 1940s:

The nastier side of Peggy’s nature surfaced when she learned that Cage, who was virtually unknown at the time, was planning a concert of his percussion music at the Museum of Modern Art. Peggy wanted him to give a concert at the opening of her Art of This Century gallery in the fall, and she was so annoyed about the MOMA concert, which would precede her opening, that she canceled the one at her gallery and rescinded her offer to pay for Cage’s percussion instruments from Chicago. She also informed Cage and Xenia that they would have to move out of Hale House. Stunned by this harsh news—he was literally penniless at the time—Cage retreated through the usual crowd of revelers until he came to a room that he thought was empty, where he broke down in tears. Someone else was there, though, sitting in a rocker and smoking a cigar. “It was Duchamp,” Cage said. “He was by himself, and somehow his presence made me feel calmer.” Although Cage could not recall what Duchamp said to him, he thought it had something to do with not depending on the Peggy Guggenheims of this world.

Peggy enjoyed toying with people, and she knew that the subject of money—her money—was one that could be counted on to discomfit, offend, and inspire gossip. Rosamond Bernier remembers attending an opening at the Art of This Century gallery. Peggy presented her with a catalogue, inscribed it with a personal note, and then demanded that Bernier pay her six dollars. A similar anecdote concerns a visit that Peggy’s Aunt Irene made to the gallery, after which Irene too was expected to pay for her copy of the catalogue.

In her fair-minded and informative 2004 biography, Mistress of Modernism, Mary V. Dearborn tells a story about Peggy inviting friends for dinner at a restaurant in Venice and informing them that it would be her treat, an offer that (on the basis of gossip and perhaps experience) they distrusted. Consequently they ordered very little—and then were surprised and chastened when Peggy picked up the bill. Peggy frequently joked about money and about the fashionable outfits that her money allowed her to buy. When her friend the novelist Antonia White complimented her on her expensive rawhide bag, Peggy replied that Antonia must not know her very well, because the bag wasn’t rawhide; it had cost five shillings. Soon after, when White remarked on a pretty scarf Peggy was wearing, Peggy said, “This—I use it for a dust-cloth.”

In London, in 1936, after an argument over whether Peggy would pay for Djuna Barnes’s passage back to the United States, Peggy told Emily Coleman that “her finances were in a bad state and she worried about it; she gives so much money away that she has very little left. I almost wept, because I can’t ever decide whether Peggy is a saint or the meanest person I have ever met—and neither can she. She actually gives away ¾ of her income, to a point where she is worried, sometimes, whether she has enough money to buy herself a dress.”

Peggy’s behavior suggests that she was often hurt by, impatient with, and resentful of friends who expected her to pay for everything and who then openly and (as she must have known) privately accused her of being ungenerous. One can sense in her actions the irritation of someone who feels that she is being taken advantage of, valued and (as seems to have been the case with Max Ernst, among others) loved only for her money. In her diary, Emily Coleman reports that Peggy’s lover John Holms claimed that Peggy was unable to conceive of a friend as anyone but a person who wanted her money.

A touching passage in Peggy’s memoir describes Laurence Vail confirming her worst fears: “Because of my money I enjoyed a certain superiority over Laurence and I used it in a dreadful way, by telling him it was mine and he couldn’t have it to dispose of freely. To revenge himself he tried to increase my sense of inferiority. He told me that I was fortunate to be accepted in Bohemia and that, since all I had to offer was my money, I should lend it to the brilliant people I met and whom I was allowed to frequent.”

Even now, the phrase—“allowed to frequent”—is distressing to read, and one hears in it the barely sublimated voice of Peggy’s anxieties, fears that would be intensified when she left Vail for John Holms and lived among friends who agreed that Peggy was incapable of participating in, or even following, their scintillating conversation. If only she had been as brilliant and talented as the people who “allowed her” to enjoy their company, a closed circle to which, for women (with a few exceptions) beauty and money were the only keys.

Another of the observations made about Peggy Guggenheim is that she was remarkably unaffected by, and indeed oblivious to, the thoughtless and even cruel ways in which she was treated; she often endured slights and insults that would have crushed a more tender soul. According to John Richardson, “Peggy was pretty thick-skinned. Even, in a way, insensitive. If someone disliked her, she overlooked it. People said things to her . . . most people would never have spoken to them again. But Peggy seemed to accept this as her fate.”

A rather different reading of Peggy’s character appears in A Not-So-Still Life, a memoir by the painter Jimmy Ernst, who worked as Peggy’s secretary after she returned to New York from Europe in 1941. To Jimmy, Peggy’s shyness and lack of affectation “suggested a painful past. At the same time there were flashes of brilliance, charm, and a warmth that seemed to be in constant doubt of being reciprocated. It must have been the anticipation of such rejection that caused her abruptly changing moods, penetrating retorts, and caustic snap judgments, but never at the cost of her femininity.”

Her Nose

Peggy’s older sister Benita was considered to be the family beauty. And from an early age, Peggy thought of herself, and was encouraged to think of herself, as the homely one.

Not long after she came into the first installment of her inheritance, Peggy resolved to do something about her nose, which she believed she’d inherited from her father’s family: the Guggenheim “potato nose.” In her memoir, she tells the story much as she relates the other traumatic events in her life: as a joke. “In the winter of 1920, being very bored, I could think of nothing better to do than have an operation performed on my nose to change its shape. It was ugly, but after the operation it was undoubtedly worse.”

In the same droll tone, she recounts the gruesome details. At the time, cosmetic surgery was such a new specialty that Peggy had to go to Cincinnati to find a doctor willing to perform a rhinoplasty. Asked to choose a new nose, Peggy opted for something poetic, a nose “tip-tilted like a flower,” like one she had read about in Tennyson. Under local anesthetic and in great pain, Peggy heard the surgeon say that he couldn’t complete the operation, and she told him to leave things as they were.

Subsequently, she adds, her nose functioned as a barometer, swelling up in bad weather. All her life, she would remain dissatisfied with her appearance, and in particular, with a nose that was hardly improved by decades of heavy drinking. Tellingly, she describes both Mary Reynolds and Djuna Barnes as having “the kind of nose I had gone all the way to Cincinnati for in vain.” And she writes, with delight and gratitude, of her mother-in-law, Gertrude Mauran Vail, the first woman Peggy met who not only admired her looks but who thought she was prettier than Benita and Hazel. “I had been brought up to believe that I was ugly, because my sisters were great beauties. It had given me an inferiority complex.” Reading memoirs and social histories of this period, one gets the impression that it was heavily populated by “beauties,” “great beauties,” and “famous beauties,” women like Nancy Cunard, Lady Diana Cooper, Luisa Casati, and Lorna Wishart, women who may have had other accomplishments, and interesting characters, but who were best known for their looks. In our day, even the prettiest women are more likely to be identified by what they do (supermodel, actress, socialite) than as “beauties,” but in Peggy’s times, these fortunate creatures were principally celebrated for their ability to attract, seduce, marry, and break the hearts of gifted, wealthy, or otherwise important men.

It was almost as if beauty were a viable (if short-lived) career for women, a profession to which Peggy believed she had been denied admission. Peggy first mentions her “inferiority complex” in connection with the hotel that turned her away because she was Jewish, and with the world of social and sexual opportunity from which she felt she was excluded because she was “ugly.”

As so often happens, others intuited—and adopted—Peggy’s low opinion of herself. A close friend of Peggy’s daughter Pegeen told Mary Dearborn, “Maybe if she’d—I don’t know, had a better nose job—that would have kept her from this fundamental insecurity.”

Anton Gill relates with some relish the harsh appraisals of those who knew her: “In the thirties, Nigel Henderson, the son of her friend Wyn, said that she reminded him of W. C. Fields, and the same resemblance was called to mind by Gore Vidal decades later. The painter Theodoros Stamos said, ‘She didn’t have a nose—she had an eggplant,’ and the artist Charles Seliger, otherwise full of sympathy and regard for Peggy, remembered that when he met her in the 1940s her nose was red, sore-looking, and sunburned: ‘You could hardly imagine anyone wanting to go to bed with her, to put it cruelly.’ ”

In fact, Peggy boasted of having had more than four hundred lovers. If she couldn’t be beautiful, she would compensate by being seductive, sexually liberated—and available. Like a number of her friends—especially Emily Coleman—she was preoccupied with sex, and seemed to thrive on dramatic and frequently violent scenes of intense jealousy and accusations of sexual betrayal.

“She was very plain,” said Rosamond Bernier. “That accounted for her throwing herself into bed with so many men.” There is perhaps no more accurate barometer of the sexual double standard than to compare the tone of such remarks with the admiration with which history has viewed physically unprepossessing men who had no trouble attracting beautiful women.

Philip Rylands, director of the Peggy Guggenheim Collection, offers a more charitable view of Peggy’s love life. “I think one reason she may have had so many love affairs was that she was interested in people, she wanted to find out who they were.”

Convinced that she was homely, Peggy would feel grateful to the men who (in her view) overlooked her appearance, fell in love, and took on the job of providing her with an education. This gratitude enabled her to endure a succession of psychologically (and physically) damaging relationships, but Peggy extracted payment by using her money to control and even humiliate the men who controlled, humiliated, and depended on her.

Excerpted from Peggy Guggenheim, by Francine Prose. Copyright © 2015 by Francine Prose. Excerpted by permission of Yale University Press. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.


Francine Prose, a National Book Award finalist, has written more than 20 works of fiction and nonfiction, including Caravaggio and Reading Like a Writer.